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Who is Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq's influential Shiite cleric?

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With more than 90 percent of votes counted, the coalition of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr is set to win Iraq's parliamentary elections, reported Al Bawaba (Jordan).

After being sidelined by Iranian-backed rivals for years, the apparent parliamentary victory marks a political comeback for Sadr, who didn't even officially run for prime minister in this year's elections.

Sadr, an opponent to both U.S. and Iranian influence in Iraq, was followed by Iran-backed Shia militia leader Hadi Al Amiri's coalition. Incumbent Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi's coalition, initially predicted to win re-election, trails in third.

With votes coming in from 16 of Iraq's 18 provinces, Sairoon -- an alliance between the Sadrist Movement and Iraq's Communist Party -- won more than 1.3 million votes and 54 of 329 parliament seats.

Voter turnout was at a low 44 percent, 15 percent lower than the turnout in the 2014 parliamentary elections.

Rend al-Rahim, a former Iraqi ambassador to the United States, told Al Jazeera Sadr's coalition win highlights "anti-establishment sentiment and anti-corruption" as driving forces behind the choice of most voters

"Many of the lists also used populist and demagogic tactics that played on the emotions of voters," Rahim said. "The success of Sairoon and Fatah clearly show that voters were ideologically and emotionally driven."

Sadr will not become prime minister, as he wasn't on the ballot, but a victory would allow him to appoint someone to the post. The other winning blocks, though, will have to approve his nomination.

Iranian officials have already stated they will block Sadr's coalition.

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In a surprise result, prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc was set to gain the most votes in Iraq's divisive parliamentary elections, according to results, reported Deutsche Welle (Germany).

Unifying Shiite Islamists and irreligious communists under a reformist banner, al-Sadr's victory at the polls marked the culmination of years of work targeting corruption and government mismanagement.

But al-Sadr built his name on everything but mainstream politics. While his political movement has transgressed sectarian lines in exchange for a nationalist platform, the Shiite cleric has a deep history of stoking those divides.

'An Iraqi nationalist'
No one person has come to signify Iraq's post-invasion insurgency against US occupation like al-Sadr. In June 2003, he formed the notorious Mahdi Army as a way to fight and one day expel occupying forces.

"Sadr made it clear with his rhetoric and style that he was first and foremost an Iraqi nationalist, not beholden to foreign powers, whether Iran, the United States or another country," said Thanassis Cambanis of the Century Foundation think tank last week.

"As a result, and especially in the early years following the invasion, Sadr was one of the few militia commanders who enjoyed at least some grudging respect across sectarian lines."

But the young Shiite cleric's militia forces stayed largely under the radar until 2004, when they clashed with US forces in the southern city of Najaf, leading to a larger campaign targeting American troops in the country.

That year, US forces were ordered to bring him in dead or alive after an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for the murder of American soldiers. For former US President George W. Bush, al-Sadr and his followers' actions amounted to the "opposite of democracy."

'Most dangerous man in Iraq'
The Mahdi Army didn't just target US forces. During its active years, the militia also targeted Sunni Iraqis and other Shiite groups. It was accused of committing atrocities through the use of death squads and, as such, fueling sectarian strife.

By 2006, US news magazine Newsweek had put al-Sadr on the front cover and dubbed him "the most dangerous man in Iraq."

"The group came to be viewed in many areas of Iraq as even more dangerous than Al-Qaeda in Iraq and as second only to the US forces in military strength," according to Stanford University's Mapping Militants Project.

However, the Mahdi Army started losing support in 2007, most notably after 50 Shiite pilgrims were killed during clashes with another Shiite militant group in Karbala.

The following year, al-Sadr ordered his militiamen to lay down their arms. While some fighters were retained to form an elite squad, the rest rebranded as Mumahidoon and focused on social services such as Quran lessons, municipal reconstruction and trash collection in Shiite areas.

In 2008, al-Sadr traveled to Iran, where he remained in exile. However, he continued to command the Sadr movement and use his authority to influence Iraq's political landscape.

The reformer
In 2011, al-Sadr returned to Iraq to have a greater say in the country's politics. By the end of that year, US forces completed their withdrawal, marking the completion of al-Sadr's central demand.

Although the Shiite cleric continued to hold influence in Iraqi politics, most notably by controlling the largest bloc in parliament, he announced in early 2014 that he would retire from Iraqi politics. But the rise of the Sunni "Islamic State" militant group changed that.

At the end of 2014, al-Sadr mobilized many of the elements that formed the Mahdi Army and created the so-called Peace Brigades, which were charged with protecting Shiite shrines and other religious sites.

Frustrated by growing government corruption, al-Sadr and his supporters in 2016 launched a sit-in inside Baghdad's heavily-fortified Green Zone to pressure the government of then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. This forced al-Abadi to present a new Cabinet to parliament.

'Best hope the country has'
Since his return to Iraq, al-Sadr has crossed sectarian lines to support a reformist agenda that aims to fight corruption and improve governance.

Ranj Alaaldin, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute's Doha Center in Qatar, wrote last year that al-Sadr not only represented "the voice of Iraq's largest demographic, its Shiite underclass," but his reformist agenda also found support from other Iraqi groups.

Read more: What does Shiite power broker al-Sadr want from Iraq?

"Due to his unparalleled capacity to mobilize the masses, his father's legacy and growing discontent in Iraq, al-Sadr may indeed be the best hope the country has of reducing Iran's influence in Iraq and enhancing government accountability in the foreseeable future."

In the run-up to Iraq's 2018 parliamentary elections, al-Sadr managed to bring together secular political groupings, including Iraq's communist party, and his traditional Shiite base to gain the most votes as a bloc, according to preliminary results. Only time will tell if he'll be able to guide Iraq towards reform.

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Last weekend’s parliamentary elections in Iraq were the country’s first since the Islamic State was militarily defeated in December, and there are hopes Iraq will turn a new chapter and move forward in its attempts to remedy challenges to its security, endemic corruption, and the polarization within its society and political elites, reported The Brookings Institution (US).

There are few certainties in an election in which close to 7,000 candidates ran for just 329 seats—in a country where the political landscape has become increasingly fragmented. One near-certain outcome is the political ascendancy of Iraq’s Shiite militias, the most dominant of which lead the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) and have extensive ties to Iran. This 100,000-strong umbrella militia organization of predominantly Shiite fighters was mobilized to fill the security vacuum that followed the Islamic State’s seizure of Mosul and the subsequent collapse of the Iraqi armed forces.

Since the war on the Islamic State started, the plethora of preexisting groups and newly formed volunteer fighters within the PMF have won widespread prominence for their battlefield successes. This has been helped by the decline in prestige of, and respect for, the Iraqi army, in large part because of its embarrassing collapse in 2014 but also because many in Iraq see it as a corrupted institution whose history is steeped in oppression and brutality.

Shiite militias in Iraq have fought—and suffered defeats—against Iraq’s U.S.-trained and backed military and were consequently marginalized at varying intervals. They operate as mafia-style organizations that engage in criminal activities, extortion, and human rights abuses.

The picture becomes complicated because of the remarkable manner in which Shiite militias in Iraq have evolved and the extent to which they—and the institution of the PMF—have maintained their autonomy, despite on paper being components of the Iraqi state that answer to the government. The Badr Brigade militia organization has controlled Iraq’s Interior Ministry and its 37,000-strong personnel since 2003. Ragtag militias like Asaib ahl al-Haq have evolved into powerful sociocultural movements that have enhanced their political credentials and have shed their bloodied reputations by band-wagoning onto existing parties and institutions. These actors have formally integrated into the Iraqi state and have weaponized the Iraqi state’s resources and its sovereignty (for international recognition)—while retaining their operational and financial autonomy.

An important misconception is the notion that armed groups are always a product of state failure and, secondly, that their existence will always be anathema to the state’s recovery. Shiite militias are a product of historical animosities, long-term oppression and perceptions of injustices and denial of rights that underpins the collective conscious of Iraq’s Shiite community. They are not anti-state, but instead seek a political order within the confines of Iraq’s existing territories, albeit one that may be at odds with those envisioned by their rivals and Iraq’s Western backers.

At the very least, the Iran-aligned groups of the PMF—Iraq’s most powerful militias and numerically superior—want to rebuild Iraq on their terms (and in partnership with Iran) as opposed to the terms and conditions set by the United States and its allies in the West.

Generally speaking, the infrastructure that enabled their rise after 2003 can also be attributed to the Shiite community’s mobilization against the former Baath regime, especially from the 1970s period and onward. Shiite militias are ingrained in the communities and environments they operate in as a result of interactions that have developed over prolonged periods.

The process and environment that enable armed groups to succeed do not take very long to emerge, but once established, they can be very difficult to dislodge. Even attempting to do so can result in the proliferation of armed groups, particularly where there are external powers involved in the conflict and whose own vested interests adds to their resilience (as is the case with the relationship Iraq’s Shiite militias have with Iran).

Studies also show nonstate violence cannot always be attributed to state failure because reliance on the wielders of nonstate violence has been a common form of military development in states where decentralized institutions of violence have been a response to changes in the regional and international systems.

Moving forward, the PMF looks set to become an institution that subsumes Iraq’s conventional armed forces. Whether this is something Iraqis want is debatable, but it will increase Iraq’s prospects of being engulfed in conflict for years to come. While there is widespread respect for the fighters who make up the various groups of the PMF, it is not lost on many within the Shiite community, Iraq’s Kurds, Arab Sunnis and minorities that the leadership of the PMF and its Iran-aligned dominant groups have explicitly pledged allegiance to Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei and the doctrine that underpins Iran’s system of governance.

The ascension of the PMF will be further helped by a regional climate where Iraqi Shiites are confronted with what they perceive as existential threats to their communities. Iraqi Shiites have historically resisted Iran’s efforts to export its theocracy to Iraq and are likely to do so in the near future, no matter how much Iran invests its resources into the holy shrine cities.

Iraq’s most powerful movement, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, the Sadrist movement, continues to build on the legacy of al-Sadr’s father, Mohammad Sadeq—the fiercely nationalistic Iraqi cleric who prided himself and his movement on the Arab identity of Iraq’s Shiites. That will ensure Iraq achieves something of an equilibrium where the balance of power does not shift too much in favor of either Iran-aligned groups or those that seek to move Iraq away from Iran’s orbit of influence, for now that is.

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Reporter: Denes Osvalt
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